Their cookin’ mix of Motown, Delta blues and glam rock has propelled The Black Keys to huge success, but what they really want, Dan Auerbach tells KEVIN COURTNEY, is lots of spuds
‘HOW YE BE doin’?” chirps Dan Auerbach down the phone from Gothenburg, in an accent that, frankly, sounds more Swedish Chef than Irish leprechaun. Luckily, he stops there, and doesn’t continue with “top o’ the morning” or “let’s wear green, drink a lot and have fights”. You see, we’re still a bit sensitive about cultural stereotyping after the flood of Oirish cliches that followed Katie Taylor’s Olympic win. The last thing we need is some blues-breaking scuzzball from Ohio getting all Darby O’Gill on our asses.
Oh, what the hell, let’s go for it. These days, everyone has some far-fetched claim to Irish ancestry, so tell me, Dan, in what way are The Black Keys Irish?
“We like potatoes,” offers Auerbach. “What way do we like potatoes? I dunno, man, any way you can make ’em. Mashed is good. Gotta have plenty of butter on ’em. Is that Irish enough?”
Your passport’s in the post, Dan.
We’ll be welcoming Na hEochracha Dubha home on Wednesday when they play the O2, their biggest Irish gig to date. Before they hit the big-time with their 2010 album Brothers, then hit the even bigger time with last year’s El Camino, Auerbach and his bandmate, Pat Carney, swore they’d never get themselves locked in an endless tour/tour/record/tour again cycle. Now that their albums are big potatoes, their concert calendar is stretching further into the future, and the venues are just getting bigger and bigger. Looks like the pair won’t be stepping off the treadmill anytime soon.
“The tour is never-ending. It does not end. We’ve been touring for like 10 years! I mean, we finish this, and we go to the west coast of America, South America, then Australia, New Zealand, then we come home and we’re gonna be in the studio, and then we go out again . . . it just doesn’t end. That’s just sorta how it is for right now. Someday it’ll change, but not right now.”
When Auerbach does manage to get time off from touring, he heads straight into his Easy Eye Sound Studio in the band’s adopted home town of Nashville, usually in the company of a bona fide musical legend or serious up-and-coming talent. Recent visitors to the studio have included Dr John, LA band The Growlers, Tuareg guitar prodigy Bombino and garage rockers Jeff the Brotherhood and Hanni El Khatib.
“My favourite place to be is in the studio, so when I’m home, I try to get into the studio whenever I can and work with different people. Try to get together with musicians that I like and I admire. I’m very fortunate cos I get to work with bands that I like.”
He’s also found time in between collaborations and production work to devote some time to the day job. Just last month, he and Carney got back into the studio to start work on their eighth album, the follow-up to El Camino.
“We started working on it just before this tour. We had no plan, just went into the studio and started messing around. We came up with some cool ideas. But there’s no apparent direction as yet. Although I know it’s just going to be Pat and me. It’ll sound like us, no matter what ends up happening or what influence it has. But nothing has taken shape yet.”
El Camino was clearly influenced by the stomping glam rock of The Sweet and T Rex, along with the band’s usual dollop of Motown, Muscle Shoals and Mississippi delta. Can Dan give us some insight into what influences will drive the new record? Like, what’s on your vinyl iPod?
“Man, there’s just so much stuff, too much stuff. And it’s a little schizophrenic what I’ve been listening to, so I think that might be part of the reason why there’s no direction. There’s, like, acoustic, south American classical guitar music, and then there’s hip-hop, and then there’s punk rock. I don’t know what’s going on in my brain sometimes.”
If someone had told you two years ago that a dirty, lo-fi rock and blues duo from Akron, Ohio, would become one of America’s biggest bands, you probably would have replied, “sure, why not?” The music world is so crazy and unpredictable these days, anything is possible.
So it was no surprise that a beardy, baleful-eyed guitarist and a gangly, bespectacled drummer, both in thrall to old blues, soul, punk and hip-hop managed to steal into the party and nab all the the rock-star kudos. Brothers scooped three Grammys, while El Camino has featured prominently on most rock mags’ end-of-year lists. The singles Lonely Boy and Gold On the Ceiling are so ubiquitous on the airwaves, they already feel like classic hits – a 20th Century Boy and Jean Genie for our times.
“It seems like every other day, something crazy happens to us,” says Auerbach. “Interview magazine just called me and asked me to interview an actor. We just played a show with Johnny Depp playing guitar. We’re gonna do a show with Neil Young in Central Park. Every week something kind of weird gets thrown on the table.”
The danger now, though, is that, having tasted mainstream success, the duo will become the very thing they set out to destroy: a fake, showbiz version of rock’n’roll that has lost all connection with its roots. In a recent interview, Carney blamed the popularity of faux-grunge band Nickelback for hastening the death of rock’n’roll. Do they ever get paranoid about becoming the Chad Kroeger and Fred Durst of their generation?
“No, not really. Pat and I are such nerds, we feel uncomfortable wearing sunglasses indoors. I feel like a prick when I have sunglasses on inside. I’ve started to, but it’s not cos I’m cool, that’s for sure.”
Certainly, you don’t hear much about drugs or wild sex in stories relating to The Black Keys. In a world where rock star memoirs compete to tell the most salacious sex and drug stories, are The Black Keys the cleanest dirty blues-rockers on the block?
“Well, you know, we just don’t really like talking about it. Most people who talk about all the drugs and stuff, they’re just talking about it. They’re poseurs, and it’s part of their persona. That’s not what we’re about. We always love music first. If we’re gonna be doing drugs, we’re not gonna be telling everyone about it. That’s like a gangster telling everybody that he’s a gangster.”
Although Auerbach promises mindblowing tales of drugs and debauchery whenever they get around to writing their autobiography, you get the impression that the duo are driven not by inner demons but by that demon rock’n’roll.
“I think that certain people are prone to self-desctruction, and some people are not. It’s in the genes. It’s not really about what profession you choose. I think Sid Vicious was gonna die at the same age, whether he was a rock’n’roll star or a trashman. He was destined for that path.”
The Black Keys play the O2 in Dublin next Wednesday
Sell, sell, sell - the truth about The Black Keys and song licensing Key ingredients
THE BLACK KEYS have dealt with accusations of selling out for commercial gain. Frustrated at their lack of success, they licensed some of their music for use in adverts and TV series. Since their big breakthrough, they’ve been inundated with offers from companies keen to be associated with the now sound of rock’n’roll. Fans were particularly unhappy that the band let one of their songs be used for the hated Twilight movie series. The duo have limited the licensing of songs from
El Camino to avoid becoming over-exposed, but that hasn’t stopped some companies from going ahead and using their tunes – or a reasonable facsimile thereof – without their say-so. The band are currently suing Pizza Hut and Home Depot for allegedly using Black Keys music without the band’s permission.
“That’s always been a big problem,” notes Auerbach. “These big companies who have a lot of money, but they don’t wanna pay to have the band’s music, so they pay somebody to make copies. The bands don’t generally fight back, because it costs a lot of money to hire a lawyer and a musicologist and all that bullshit. But it was
so blatant, and it was such a big company that we just said, we just gotta do it. It’s just wrong. So we’re just kind of taking a stand for ourselves, and for other bands who get ripped off on a daily basis.
“I’ve got friends who do music for commercials, and companies will just send them a Black Keys song and say, ‘we need a copy of this by Wednesday’. It’s this thing where people don’t wanna pay for music. It’s crippling the music industry, this digital-age mentality that music should just be free.”